Hanif and the Birds

With gratitude and respect for Hanif and the Eaux Claires crew (and the memory of Tim and Waymore), here’s last weekend’s “Roughneck Grace” column:


Rain is dripping from the leaves in the aftermath of a morning thunderstorm. The skies are still gray. There are no shadows. Last week someone asked who was my favorite poet. I am on speaking terms with just enough poets to know better than to name names. Furthermore, the act of ranking poesies is a silliness akin to stringing squash racquets with spun sugar; it leads to a pointless game and makes a mess of something sweet. More importantly, have you ever heard birds sing as the cloudburst fades?

I did go so far as to say you could do worse in this historic moment than reading the collected works of Lucille Clifton, who knocked me off my slice of comfy white bread over 30 years ago. There is much to be learned from the late Ms. Clifton’s works regarding brevity, bravery, boldness, clarification, scarification and — when earned as such — celebration of the human as a whole.

I have just deleted the paragraph that followed the one above; it morphed into a recitation of the names of poets who have held the greatest sway over me over time. I am forever grateful for and will forever re-read their work, but the line between recitation and regurgitation, of reverence and somnolence, requires attention. Reminiscence is a righteous form of restoration until it obscures the vital present; rather than trot out my well-worns, let me cast my eyes down and to the right of my well-worn reading chair and tell you I see (and recommend) three titles by the poet, essayist and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib: “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” “The Crown Ain’t Worth Much” and “A Fortune for Your Disaster.”

I once observed as Hanif read his poetry from the balcony of a tiny house tuned and wired for sound while it was played by musicians during an alternative music festival. Twenty-five years earlier, in that very same field, I whooped and hollered through my one and only Waylon Jennings concert. Both men were solidly on message and how I love cultural caroms.

Yesterday after picking potato bugs beneath an exfoliating sun I had taken to the shade of a maple with a cool drink of water in hand when a gigantic oak not 50 yards away spontaneously split in two and sent one half of itself crashing to the forest floor. It took several smaller trees with it, and the noise was louder and went on for longer than you’d think it would, and naturally this rendered the subsequent silence capacious indeed. As non sequiturs go, this was a real organic crackerjack. But as with today’s departing thunderstorm, birdsong flowed quickly back in.

I notice birds have been cropping up in my writing a lot lately. I’m no ornithologist and hardly a mystic, but as with poets I suspect it has something to do with their willingness to sing for us even when we don’t deserve it.

Want to be the first to know when Mike has a new book, or is coming to your area? Please sign up for the email list.